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Reduced Raptors take on Bulls: Preview, start time, and more

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With the play-in out of reach, the long-term implications of this matchup may be more significant than the immediate ones.

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

For a moment there it felt like they might make an actual turnaround. An influx of effective centres, a team-wide return from COVID protocols, and a run of stellar play from Pascal Siakam inspired Toronto Raptors fans — or at least the more optimistic ones — that despite everything, the Raptors could gun for a playoff spot at the last minute. Alas, as has been the case in so many Raptors games this year, it was only a fake comeback.

With Toronto officially eliminated from a chance at the play-in tournament, management’s focus has become absolutely clear (if it hadn’t already been). The team has chosen to rest its best players, both for injury management with an eye on offseason training, and for reasons pertaining to the Draft Lottery in June. Games like tonight provide the team with the ability to evaluate the deep end of the roster, while giving rookies Malachi Flynn, Jalen Harris, and Freddie Gillespie opportunities to grow as NBA players.

The Raptors’ opponents, the Chicago Bulls, are only two games ahead of Toronto in the standings. But with their chances at the play-in still (just barely) alive and a win-now deadline move for Nikola Vucevic in the books, the Bulls will stick with their regular starters in an attempt to squeeze into the postseason.

If there’s one thing to have taken away from the last couple weeks, it’s that the players don’t tank. The Raptors’ effort has been encouraging and the defense and rebounding have picked up late in the season. But the Raptors — or at least this depleted version of them — will have their work cut out for them keeping up with the scoring and playmaking of All-Stars Zach LaVine and Vucevic.

Here are tonight’s game details:

Where to Watch:

TSN, 8:00 PM EST

Lineups:

Toronto – Malachi Flynn, Gary Trent Jr., Yuta Watanabe, Stanley Johnson, Khem Birch

Chicago – Coby White, Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, Daniel Theis, Nikola Vucevic

Injuries:

Toronto – Kyle Lowry (rest – OUT), Fred VanVleet (hip – OUT), Pascal Siakam (shoulder – OUT), OG Anunoby (calf – OUT), Chris Boucher (knee – OUT), Paul Watson (knee – OUT), Rodney Hood (hand – OUT), Aron Baynes (foot – OUT)

Chicago – Troy Brown (ankle – questionable), Daniel Theis (hip - questionable), Tomas Satoransky (ankle – questionable)

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The Rookie Backcourt

Offensive firepower was an obvious issue in Tuesday’s game against the Clippers, and with Chris Boucher now out, tonight’s roster will have even less floor spacing to work with. To that end, aside from streaky Gary Trent, rookies Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris are probably the most dangerous shooters on the team, and will thus be important factors in keeping the offense afloat.

More importantly, though, look for Flynn to be aggressive and use his quickness and screens to reach the paint. Flynn will be the Raptors’ primary playmaker, and his ability to get to the rim unlocks a number of scoring opportunities not only for himself, but also in dump-offs to bigs and kick-outs to shooters. These reps are certainly useful in helping develop Flynn’s decision-making with the ball.

Whatever the Opposite of a Playoff Rotation Is

As you might recall from the last seven years of the Raptors participating in the postseason, teams will often shorten their rotation to eight or even seven players in the playoffs. Perhaps the Raptors’ decision to only have eight active players tonight is an homage to the organization’s impressive streak of yore. The key difference, of course, is that playoff teams shorten their rotation to their eight best players. Tonight, the Raptors will be playing their eight, uh, not best players.

Kidding aside, all these available minutes means some fun things (outside of tired legs). For example, tonight should be the third consecutive (and ever) time that we see Jalen Harris for 20+ minutes in an NBA game. Having put up 16 and 10 in the last two games respectively, Harris has shown flashes of being a solid scorer. It’ll be interesting to see how Nick Nurse uses him tonight, and whether he will show an ability to create for others. The same goes for Gary Trent, who figures to be central to the Raptors’ offense with so many players out.

Ben Uzoh Game Potential?

The best case scenario for the Raptors tonight is a loss. It doesn’t feel good to acknowledge that or to even type it, but you know what? The Raptors have gotten a lot of bad breaks this year — if someone simulated the season 20 times, this might have been the worst of all the realistic outcomes. So might as well make the best of a bad situation and gun for the team’s highest draft pick in a decade. Which brings us to Ben Uzoh...

For those who are unfamiliar, the Raptors benched their entire starting lineup against the New Jersey Nets in the final game of the 2011-12 season, hoping the reserves would lose and subsequently boost their lottery odds. Instead, Ben Uzoh gave a heroic performance by putting up a triple-double that won the Raptors the game — and may have cost them a chance at drafting Damian Lillard. (In hindsight it turned out just fine since the Raptors ended up with Lowry, but the point still stands). With a loss tonight, the Raptors are guaranteed the seventh-best lottery odds and a 32% chance at a top four pick. If they win, the Raptors could potentially pass the Bulls in the standings and fall to a 26.3% chance at the top four. It might not sound like much, but that differential could decide just how high the Raptors’ ceiling is for years to come.